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[INTERVIEW] Beesen chief's passion on bee venom delivers

Ahn Chang-ki, CEO of Beesen / Courtesy of Beesen

CEO Ahn Chang-ki says he got stung, and then hooked on bees

By Kim Ji-soo

From goat's milk and snail mucin to kelp, snake venom and bee venom _ seemingly exotic ingredients are now central in cosmetics products. These cutting-edge cosmetics, including those made with bee venom, have garnered high-profile singular fans such as Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

The cosmetic benefits of honey bee venom have surged to the fore in recent years. The venom's toxin melittin is known to prompt production of natural collagen and elastin. Bee sting therapy has been an alternative treatment in Korea, but now one local company is looking to popularize it through cosmetics.

Beesen, based in Geumsan, South Chungcheong Province, has the knowhow to extract and make bee venom into a key ingredient, Bee M4A, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties. Last Monday, it signed a contract worth 300 billion won ($268 million) to export 8 million facial mask packs to DIA Group of China over a two-year period.

One of the facial mask packs that Beesen makes / Courtesy of Beesen
"The signing of the contract is a clear herald of good Korea-China (economic) ties," said Ahn Chang-ki, CEO of the Geumsan-based company. The news indeed can ease some of the Korea-China tensions in the industry over the deployment of the U.S. missile system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in the country.

While these are affordable facial mask packs, costing less than 30,000 won for five sheets, Beesen is definitely aiming for a future where M4A can produce natural antibiotic feed for livestock and fisheries and treat previously incurable human diseases.

But back to cosmetics for now, as Korean cosmetics is one of the hottest sectors domestically and internationally. Beesen's contract also means the estimated 40,000 bee farmers in the country do not have to sit idly after the honey-reaping season stretching late April to late June and work until August extracting bee venom, he said.

Ahn himself started with a bee farm in 1995 after leaving a conglomerate, the predecessor of SK Group, where he worked as a researcher in textiles. Ahn said he got hooked on bee venom research after he got stung by swarming bees one fall. He not only survived the stings, but said his acne problems disappeared.

"It has happened to some people, including myself," Ahn said.

Ahn Chang-ki works with bees/ Courtesy of Beesen

So he dug deep into bee venom research, founding a company in 1997. He then established Beesen in 2008, first delving into producing products to treat bees themselves with bee venom. "Bees too have illnesses and diseases," Ahn said. It was by all means, a niche industry where conglomerates did not compete, so Beesen seized upon it. With financial assistance from the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2010-2013, Beesen developed modern equipment and related technologies for extracting bee venom. The assistance was to produce natural-antibody feed for livestock. Beesen's R&D expertise has accumulated over the years, and it now also makes cosmetic products such as facial mask packs using the venom.

Discovering Bee M4A involved a long period of difficult research work and of persuading experts, policymakers and consumers of the benefits of bee venom. For example, Beesen sought the help of Strathclyde University professor Mark Dufton, a snake venom expert, for the research consortium. He was not initially sold on Beesen's idea but eventually joined the research after verifying bee venom's effects.

"We were able to persuasively make the point that while bee venom can be extracted only in small amounts compared to snake venom, for which each extraction can easily fill a juice cup, bees are much more numerable compared to snakes," Ahn said. The Bee M4A was discovered, through a research consortium with CHA Hospital and the Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2015.

Beesen said Bee M4A is a natural anti-aging ingredient that only extracts 6 percent (compared to the total amount of venom) and it is effective for anti-ageing treatment with allergens removed from the venom.

"It is actually a code name of the project, and you can say it is the result of our sweat," Ahn said. When Bee M4A was discovered, he felt like he had struck gold. It was at the mention of the discovery of Bee M4A that Ahn smiled for the first time during the interview.

His employees said Ahn is a proactive leader who is very hands-on with tasks, especially research.

The company's cash cow is its array of products that treat or feed bees. But Ahn is looking to diversify into facial mask packs, as well as natural antibiotics for livestock and humans.

Beesen outsources bee venom in bulk from various farms around the nation every year.

At its lab in Geumsan, South Chungcheong Province, it has about 150 boxes containing 30,000 bees per box. The company extracts the venom without killing the bees by using a glass pane through which a small amount of electrical current passes. The bees, feeling the electricity, sting the glass pane, leaving their venom on the pane without losing their stinger.

With 27 employees including 12 researchers dedicated to bee venom research, the company recorded around 4.4 billion won in sales in 2016.

"We are surviving, but we hope to see some meaningful growth in the coming years," Ahn said.

Ahn sees various possibilities from Beesen's research.

This February, the company's lab announced its discovery of some Bee M4A benefits in treating diabetes, and its paper is awaiting acceptance for publication in an international journal. Ahn spoke passionately about using Bee M4A to treat animals and consequently promote healthy meat and seafood in the future.

"A future in anti-aging products, soon followed by providing safe, natural antibiotics for cows, pigs, chickens and fish, and then curing (previously) incurable human diseases so that people can live their given lives healthy… that is our goal for the future," Ahn said. "There is just so much more work ahead."

Kim Ji-soo

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